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The Difference Between All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days (and How to Celebrate Both)

all saints day all souls day explanation

Happy Feast of All Saints!

This feast begins the month of November and orders our hearts and prayers toward a posture of giving gratitude. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day differ a bit from our traditional Thanksgiving mindset, in that we are giving thanks for, and asking intercession from those holy witnesses that have gone before us.

Very often I think the close succession of holy days that fall near this turning of the calendar can jumble the focus of the particular feasts and our participation in them. It is awe-inspiring (and a little out of the ordinary) to link our individual lives with the likes of the entire Mystical Body of Christ. But that is what this feast and its next-day-twin, All Souls’, are all about.

Celebrating the Saints

Before the days of the Saint-name-generators, choosing a Saint—or letting a Saint choose you—for the year was a practice. It was new to me. I assume this was a roommate’s New Year’s tradition, or maybe my friends were onto something cutting edge?

Either way, on January 1st, out came the bag of Saint cards that my friend had stashed somewhere in her desk drawer. We passed around the tiny icons like baseball cards, singling out that patron or patroness that might offer particular guidance to our young adult lives in the New Year.

When it came time for me to choose, I pulled out an icon for All Saints. My friend suggested I draw again because I was only supposed to get one, and it was a little much to expect all of the Saints to walk with me that year.

I assured her that given the opportunity for all the Saints in Heaven to accompany me; I was not going to pass it up on a technicality!

This is basically the feast of All Saints in a nutshell.

All the Saints!

After all, I had grown up attending All Saints parish. I had always appreciated that no one had chosen to pare down our heavenly intercessors to just one. With so many wonderful options, why narrow it down?

We celebrated the Communion of Saints by way of our annual parish festival. I imagine I went to Mass, but perhaps my limited understanding of the Liturgy blended with all other liturgies.

It wasn’t until I became rooted in a town with a Benedictine Abbey in which to celebrate the feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days that my eyes were opened to the magnanimity of these days, the particular distinctions between these celebrations, and what they mean.

A Profound Liturgy

Candles flickering and schola chanting, the Abbey was illuminated by dozens of relics throughout the church, available for veneration by the gathered community. Something about this celebration felt so mooring to me, connecting the past with the present.

The next day, the atmosphere was similar, but fresh in its own way as the names and images of deceased loved ones were spoken and shared—my grandmother’s included. The loves and losses that had melded and shaped the people gathered that year collected and offered back to God not in the freshness of grief, but in the gratitude of bearing witness.

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All Saints’ Day

The Feast of All Saints is celebrated on November 1st each year, or All Hallows’ Eve if you attend the Vigil Mass. It is a day to venerate all of the  holy women and men who have already been canonized and the entire Church Triumphant. It is typical that during a celebration of All Saints’ that a church would include any relics in its possession in the celebration of this Liturgy. At a vigil celebration, this very often looks like a votive candle illuminating the relic for the benefit of the gathered community that they might pray in a more intimate way for the intercession of a Saint that is significant to that faith community.  ­

The Mass is always a sensory experiences, but in a particular way, the vigil celebration of All Saints’ Day is a feast for the eyes.

All Souls’ Day

We follow one celebration with the Feast of All Souls, at which time we celebrate everyone and anyone of the faithful who have died that year and the entire Church Suffering. We pray on their behalf for eternal rest. Often parishes will provide a book of the dead in which the names of those who have died during the year will be listed and prayed over. This is a particularly moving time of remembrance of those we love and have lost. It stirs a deep hope both in the act of remembering their lives and interceding for them.

Our parish has a tradition of celebrating Dia de los Muertos after Mass on both holy days. Each year, families create memorials of their loved ones with pictures, foods, and trinkets that help to mark the significance of that person’s life. Of course, their loss is mourned. But it is joy that I notice as people commemorate the lives of those they have lost.

For a concept that is difficult for adults to comprehend, and even more so to explain to children, I still find the movie Coco to be one of the best and most beautiful attempts to capture the practice of honoring the feast of All Souls and the vastness of the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).

The theology of this particular day is deeply moving and yet it smacks of ordinariness. On some level, this is how we keep the memory of our families alive, in the hope of reunion in Heaven. Honoring the lives of those we love, however long or short, is our heritage.

How do you celebrate the feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day? Share ideas with us in the comments below!

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Katie Cassady is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She is a wife and mom to two little girls in Denver, CO. Steeped in theological reflection, beekeeping and motherhood, she is appreciative of any and all wisdom she can glean from those living intentional lives of faith. Find out more about her here.

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